Bad data systems do not justify sexist your behavior

This week we get a letter from Atlantic Broadband, our ISP, addressed to “Aaron & Eliza Crosman Geor”. My wife has never gone by Eliza and her last name is not “Geor”.

Atlantic Broadband to: Aaron & Eliza Crosman GeorIt’s been this way since we signed up with them, when we ask them to fix it they acknowledge that they cannot because their database cannot correctly handle couples with different last names who both want to appear on the account. Apparently it is the position of Atlantic Broadband that in 2016 it is reasonable to tell a woman she cannot be addressed by her legal name because it would be expensive for them to fix their database, and therefore she must be misaddressed or left out entirely.

I consider this unacceptable from old companies, but Atlantic BB was founded in 2004 – there are probably articles about not making assumptions about people’s names that are older than their company.

Folks, it is 2016, when companies insult people and then blame their databases it is because they do not consider all their customers worthy of equal respect.

So let’s get a few basics out of the way:

  • Software reflects the biases of the people who write it and buy it.
  • If your database tells someone their name is invalid your database is not neutral. Just because you don’t get the push-back that Facebook sees when they mess this up does not mean what you’re doing is okay.
  • If your database assumes my household follows 1950s social norms, the company that uses it considers 1950s social norms acceptable in 2016 – and there are probably a few of those they don’t want to defend (I hope).
  • When an email, phone rep, or letter calls me by my wife’s last name or her by mine, in both cases they are assuming she has my last name not that I have hers. This is a sexist assumption that the company has chosen to allow.

Of course Atlantic isn’t the only company that does this: Verizon calls me Elizabeth in email a couple times a week because she must be primary on that account (one person must lead the family plan), and Nationwide Insurance had to hack their data fields for years so my wife could appear on our car insurance card (as required by law) every time we moved because their web interface no longer allowed the needed changes. The same bad design assumptions can be insulting for other reasons such as ethnic discrimination. My grandmother was mis-addressed by just about everyone until she died because in the 1960s the Social Security Administration could not handle having an ‘ in her name, and no one was willing to fix it in the 50 years that followed SSA’s uninvited edit to her (and many other people’s) name.

In all these cases representatives all say something to the effect of “our computers cannot handle it.” And that of course is simply not true. Your systems may not be setup to handle real people, but that’s because you don’t believe they should be.

Let’s check Atlantic Broadband’s beliefs about their customers based on how they address us (I’m sure there are some additional assumptions not reflected here but these are the ones they managed to encode in one line in this letter):

  • They assume they are addressing one primary account holder: I happen to know from my interactions with them that they list my first name as: “Aaron & Eliza”, and my last name as “Crosman Geor”. Plenty of households have more than one, or even two, adults who expect equal treatment in their home. Our bank and mortgage company know we are both responsible adults why is this so hard for an ISP (or insurance company, or cell provider, credit card, etc)?
  • They assume my first name isn’t very long: They allowed 13 characters, but 4 more is too many. I went to high school with a kid who broke their database by exceeding the 26 character limit it had (they didn’t ask the kid to change his name, the school database admin fixed the database), but Atlantic can barely handle half that.
  • They assume my last name isn’t very long: Only 12 characters were used and they stopped in a strange place. I know many people with last name longer than that: frequently people who have hyphenated last names blow past 12. Also the kid with a 26 character first name – his surname was longer.
  • They assume my middle name isn’t an important part of my name: If they had a middle name field, they could squeeze a few more letters in and make this read more sensibly.  But they only consider first and last names important. Plenty of people have three names – or more – they like to have included on letters.
  • They assume it is okay to mis-address me and my wife: The name listed is just plain wrong, but they believe it’s okay to keep using this greeting. They assume this even after they have been told it’s not, and even after we’ve reduced service with them (if another ISP provided service to my house I’d probably cut it entirely although mostly for other reasons). They believe misaddressed advertisements will convince me I need a landline or cable package again.

Now I’ll be fair for just a minute and note something they got right: they allow & and spaces in a name so Little Bobby Tables might be able to be a customer without causing a crisis (partially because his name is too long for them to fit a valid SQL command into the field).

Frequently you’ll hear customers blame themselves because their names are too long or they have done something outside the “norm”. Let’s be clear: this is the fault of the people who write and buy the software. Software development is entirely too dominated by men, as is the leadership of large companies. When a company lacks diversity in key roles you see that reflected in the systems built to support the work. Atlantic’s leadership’s priorities and views are reflected in how their customers are addressed because they did not demand the developers correct their sexist assumptions.

These problems are too common for us to be able to refuse to do business when it comes up. I will say that when we switched our insurance to State Farm they did not have any trouble understanding that we had different last names and their systems accommodated that by default.

If you do business with a company that makes these (or other similar mistakes) I think it’s totally reasonable to remind them every time you reasonable can that it’s offensive. Explain that they company is denying you, your loved ones, and/or your friends a major marker of their identity. Remind them they are not neutral.

If you write data systems for a living: check the assumptions you’re building into your code. Don’t blame the technology because you used the wrong character set or trimmed the field too short: disk is cheap, UTF-8 has been standard for 15+ years, and processors are fast. If the database or report layout doesn’t work because someone’s name is too long the flaw is not the name.

We all make mistakes and bad assumptions sometimes, but that does not make it okay to deny people basic respect. When we make a bad assumption, that’s a bug, and good developers are obligated to fix it. Good companies are obligated to prevent it from happening in the first place.

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